combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2004

Don't Worry, The Boss Knows All About It
excerpted from Hammer and Skull

          Lopatov observed the plane as it lazily circled overhead that fine summer morning. He didn't bother to consult the VNOS chart; he knew it was a FW-189, a Luftwaffe tactical reconnaissance plane equipped with a camera. Nemtsie had sent one over from Poland virtually every other day for a week. The thought made Lopatov's usually sunny face darken as he put his field glasses back in their case. He continued down the path between the wheat fields that led to battalion headquarters in Domacheva. The largest hut in the village, formerly owned by a wealthy peasant — he'd owned three pigs, a horse, a dozen chickens, and who'd been declared a kulak and shipped to Siberia — served as HQ and the CO's quarters.

          Lopatov exchanged sign and counter-sign with the sentry. He wiped off his boots with a soft cloth — the CO was a stickler for appearance — and entered the hut, past the curtain that separated the CO from Zholudev the pisar, the battalion clerk. He halted before the CO's desk, snapped off a sharp salute, and bellowed: "Tovarish Kapitan Rozenkrijtz, Starshij Lejtenant Lopatov reports as ordered!"

          The CO looked up from his paperwork. Inscrutable, nothing could be read on his dark face except perhaps a glint in his black eyes that hinted at amusement. He returned the salute.

          "Sasha, do you know your company is the worst in the division?"

          "Oh, really," said Lopatov, "I would have thought that honor belonged to the 63rd Rifle Regiment company that lost its Degtyarev last week."

          "Machine guns can be replaced," said Rozenkrijtz.

          He stood up, walked around the table, and clapped Lopatov on the shoulder.

          "Can second company live down having you for its old man, Aleksei?"

          They laughed. For a few seconds Aleksei and Semyon were what they would have been in more normal times and a more fortunate place: carefree, happy young men. The moment passed, however. Semyon resumed his mask of command.

          "How are the barracks? Close to complete?"

          "Of course not," said Lopatov, "but on the way here-"

          A finger to Semyon's lips quieted Lopatov. He pointed to the curtain. Zholudev sat well within earshot.

          "Let's walk," he suggested, "I feel cooped up."

          Rozenkrijtz put on his Sam Browne belt and his hat. They walked to the nearby forest where the battalion command post was being prepared. It was cool and shady among the birches and acacias. Small white and yellow butterflies flitted by. Occasionally they saw the bent figure of a babushka, an old woman, with a basket harvesting mushrooms.

          "I saw a nemtsij spy plane."

          "Again?" said Semyon in mock incredulity. "You'd think they'd have more than enough photos by now. What is it, eight overflights spotted by us alone in the last three weeks? They probably can't believe how unprepared we are and think it's a trick."

          "Shouldn't we report it?"

          "What for? Regiment's perfectly aware. So is Division and for that matter Corps Headquarters in Minsk. There's nothing to do about it. We're under strict orders not to fire under any circumstances."

          "But why?" said Lopatov, his honest face screwed up in perplexity.

          "It's a blatant provocation! We have every right to shoot them down; why don't we just do it? It makes no sense!"

          "Sasha, how many gun emplacements are supposed to be in our sector alone?"


          "How many are there in fact?"

          "Well, none, although I'm told the zeks will finish that one out by third company soon."

          Rozenkrijtz snorted.

          "Those poor, half-dead convicts can't lift a shovel, much less pour tons of concrete. Here's another tidbit. The artillery company five kilometers from here? Did you know they've no ammunition?"

          "Chto-zhe, what's that?" said Lopatov. "What's the point of artillery without ammunition?"

          "That's a question I can't answer. They've got no transport either. Their lorries and tractors were requisitioned by Voenstroi to help build the defensive line. But never mind that, I'm your superior; I ask questions and you answer. Here's a good one: if we're supposed to be a modern army, why doesn't Division have a wireless set? If they want to reach Minsk, they plug in to the civilian telephone network through the local post office."

          "Semich, we know there are shortcomings, but —"

          "But nothing. Don't talk about shortcomings when we haven't even camouflaged the supply dumps. We've got tank brigades led by officers with only two months training. That's not what really troubles me, though. You've heard of the ostrich?"

          "Semka, I may be a peasant who didn't grow up in Moscow like you, but I know what an ostrich is. It's the long-necked bird that lives in Africa."

          "Nu, molodets, well done," said Rozenkrijtz. "According to legend, when an ostrich is threatened, he sticks his head in the sand, apparently thinking this makes him invisible. That's what we're doing. We ignore overflights, nemtsie night reconnaissance patrols, turn a blind eye to the hopeless state of our defenses, and if anyone has the gall to point it out, they just say: Don't panic. The Boss knows all about it.'"

          "Semka, things aren't that bad. We get stronger every day. By '42, we'll be invincible. The nemtsie will never defeat us then."

          "What makes you think they'll wait? They just finished conquering the Balkans. Bulgaria's in their camp, so are Hungary and Romania. Why would they carry out that campaign and make such alliances if they weren't going to invade soon?"

          They walked in a wide circle that led back to Domacheva. They didn't bother to greet the peasants and babushki they met on the way; they knew how much they hated Red Army men as foreign invaders who'd stolen their land and goods. When they walked into the hut, Zholudev announced: "Battalion politruk Deryagin wants you, Tovarish Kapitan."

          Semyon and Aleksei looked at one another and grimaced. Rozenkrijtz shrugged. They passed the curtain to find a tall, blond, well-built man with a red star on the left sleeve of his tunic intently studying Semyon's log.

          "Dobrij den, good day, Tovarish Politruk," said Semyon.

          Deryagin didn't bother to return the greeting. He instead looked at Rozenkrijtz in a frankly insubordinate manner.

          "I've noted deficiencies in the log, Tovarish Kapitan."

          "Such as?" asked Rozenkrijtz.

          "There's no entry concerning anti-Soviet statements made by elements of second company."

          "That's a lie," said Lopatov, immediately losing his temper. A withering look from Rozenkrijtz silenced him.

          "I have it on good authority, Lopatov, that several of your men have been complaining about the temporary barracks. This by itself is bad enough, but the open fear mongering that goes on is in complete contradiction to doctrine. It is unsupportable."

          "What do you mean, Tovarish Politruk?" asked Rozenkrijtz. "If it's simply Red Army men speculating on battle and whether they're brave enough to face it, that's something every soldier worries about."

          "I'm referring to remarks like those made by Efrejtor Sergeyev on Ponedelnik the 16th. In front of his fellows, Sergeyev said: Our army is not prepared for war. People are poorly informed of this. The Germans will push right through us all the way to Moscow.'"

          "Sergeyev is a good man," protested Lopatov.

          "If this is true, Sergeyev will be severely punished. Lopatov will see to it. A good dose of company punishment will set him to rights."

          "I have my doubts," replied Deryagin.

          "Despite my best efforts, there is scant understanding in the battalion that the Workers and Peasants' Red Army is a great and invincible force. Any attempt to breach Soviet borders by a foreign enemy will be instantly repelled. The war will then be taken to their territory. You can reassure the troops: any maneuvering by the Germans is just a ruse to extract more at the bargaining table.

          "It's true that you command the battalion, Tovarish Kapitan; you no longer need my counter-signature to issue orders. That doesn't relieve me of responsibility for political affairs, however. I suggest that you work with me rather than at cross-purposes to me."

          "I'll do everything I can," said Rozenkrijtz to Deryagin, already leaving.

          "Yej-Bogu, really and truly, I'd like to smash his face," Lopatov muttered once he was gone.

          "Yes, that's what he wants, too," whispered Semyon.

          "Can't you see he gets at me through you? We're friends; he was certain I'd defend you just like he knew you'd lose your temper. You obliged him."

          "So what do we do?"

          "Bide our time; wait for the right moment. If it comes, we'll have his guts!" Rozenkrijtz hissed.

          "For the time being, we have to accommodate him. Give Sergeyev extra duty for two weeks, cut his rations too."

          "That's hard when he was only being honest."

          "A big mistake. Dismiss, Sasha. Go back to second company. Keep your men quiet. Complaining about having your head stuck in a cannon's mouth won't save you. We can't afford more incidents with Deryagin."

          Lopatov saluted and left. Rozenkrijtz returned to his paperwork, a report on battalion implementation of Order No. 0219, a severe warning to Red Army personnel about carelessness with notebooks and documents.

          Semyon resumed work after supper. There were fewer interruptions and it kept Zholudev, who he knew spied on him, busy when he could be drinking vodka. Even iron tyrants like Rozenkrijtz — for that was what the men considered him — had to rest. He told Zholudev to be at his desk at work by 0600 and turned in at 0130. The hut was miserably hot and stuffy. Semyon stripped to his shorts and lay down on the army cot. He was almost asleep when he heard a tentative knock at the door. Used to summons at any hour, he got out of bed and opened the door. It was Zholudev.

          "You will excuse it, kapitan. The signalist says there's an urgent call from Starshij Lejtenant Boldunov."

          This both startled and puzzled Rozenkrijtz. Boldunov commanded the 90th Border Guards detachment responsible for the frontier region immediately in front of Semyon's battalion. Rozenkrijtz had introduced himself shortly after being stationed on the frontier. Boldunov struck him as a typical NKVD son-of-a-bitch, arrogant, uncultured, and without a shred of doubt in himself or the system. He'd never heard from him until now.

          "Tell the signalist I'm on my way. Have Rudakov brew some chai. Get Korzhak up too and tell him to get the lorry ready. We may need it."

          "Tak tochno, exactly so, Tovarish Kapitan!"

          Rozenkrijtz dressed. He ran over to the whitewashed plaster building that housed the general store and the village telephone exchange, the only substantial structure in Domacheva other than his billet. The signalist, a grizzled reservist some fifteen years older than Semyon, handed him the bulky headset.

          "Rozenkrijtz here."

          "Tovarish Kapitan," said a voice, thin and distorted by static. "You'll excuse this call at such a late hour, but something's come up. It's no great affair, but I still think you ought to drive up to the frontier. Is that possible?"

          Despite his disclaimer, Rozenkrijtz could sense Boldunov's urgency. Fear was palpable in his quivering voice. "That's no problem. I'll be there in half-an-hour." "Spasibo vam, my thanks to you, Tovarish Kapitan," Boldunov said.

          Semyon had acquired a GAZ-AA lorry that he guarded like his life. Korzhak, a Leningrader with mechanical expertise from factory experience, drove quickly down narrow dirt roads through the forest that led to the frontier. They were halted about a kilometer from the border by nervous NKVD men armed with papecha submachine guns. Satisfied as to their identities, the border troops led Rozenkrijtz on foot to a nearby bunker.

          Inside, Boldunov sat at a field table, a jowly man in black trousers and blue cap. Another man sat opposite him, a young man with a soldier's closely cropped hair, tall with an ungainly look and large trembling red hands. He was naked except for a tightly wrapped blanket. Semyon noticed his hair was wet even though it hadn't rained.

          "Ah, Tovarish Kapitan Rozenkrijtz," said Boldunov, jumping up, delighted as if Semyon were an old friend.

          "Bolshoe spasibo, great thanks, coming here on short notice at this hour. Would you mind stepping outside for a moment?"

          Unused to such courtesy from an NKVD man and accordingly suspicious, Rozenkrijtz went outside with Boldunov.

          "Sorry for the precautions," Boldunov said after he'd lit up a papirosa.

          "I don't want to take chances. I'm not sure whether that bastard speaks Russian."

          "Who is he?"

          "Claims he's a German soldier. The night patrol found him on the riverbank. He says he swam across."

          "That accounts for the wet hair. What does he want?"

          "I don't know; I can't understand him. He points to the calendar, to Vykhodnoj, the 22nd, and keeps saying: Kreeg, kreeg.' I understand you speak German so I was hoping you could help interrogate him. "

          Rozenkrijtz wasn't surprised Boldunov knew he spoke German. Information was the NKVD's business. He nodded assent, then motioned to Boldunov to return to the bunker. Semyon pulled up a chair, sat down, and inquired in heavily-accented but functional German: "State your name, rank, and unit."

          Delighted to hear his own language, the young man smiled broadly and said: "Liskof, Alfred; obergefreiter, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 74th Infantry Division, Herr Offizier!"

          Rozenkrijtz translated this for Boldunov who wrote it down in the crabbed, careful hand of the semi-literate.

          "Find out why he deserted, Tovarish Kapitan," he said.

          "Why are you here? Why did you desert?"

          "I hit my company commander after he insulted me. They were going to court-martial me."

          "He says he ran away to avoid court-martial for striking his CO."

          This information elicited a broad smile from Boldunov. Wrongdoing was something an NKVD man understood.

          "I have very important information for you, though. I'm not just a deserter, my father was a communist, a member of the Rote Fahne!"

          Liskof looked like he was about to sing the Internationale. Rozenkrijtz intervened with another question.

          "What is this information?"

          "The Germans are going to invade! In three days, on Sunday, the 22nd. I even know the hour: 0330! Everybody's excited about it; the men keep talking about all the loot we'll have."

          Rozenkrijtz sat utterly still, as if some old koldunya from a Russian fairy tale had turned him to stone. He told himself: don't be shocked; you expected it. It was still unbearable to have his worst fears confirmed.

          "What did he say?" demanded Boldunov. "You're white as a sheet! If he's getting rude or difficult, let me know and I'll have the lads soften him up."

          "No, it's not that," said Semyon wearily, for he was suddenly exhausted, "he says the Germans will invade in three days."

          It was Boldunov's turn to be stupefied. The two Russians stared at one another as the gravity of the deserter's words sank in upon them. Only Liskof was animated. Aware that his fate depended on them, he eagerly scanned his captors' faces for any clue.

          "Nu, efrejtor," said Boldunov finally, "get this fellow out of here. Put him in a tent under guard, two men at all times. Get him food and a uniform. Mind, no rough stuff for now! We may need him later."

          Liskof was led out. Boldunov turned to Rozenkrijtz and said: "What do we do now?"

          "Report this to Western Border Command in Minsk. You also should tell 4th Army, Korobkov's staff. If I were you, I'd recommend they pass this on to every unit in 4th Army down to division level."

          "They won't believe me. I'll just get in trouble. They'll say I'm a provocateur trying to force war between Russia and Germany. They'll strip me of my commission or arrest me."

          Boldunov made an already tense situation even more uncomfortable. He burst into tears. Disgusted, Semyon decided there was nothing more to do here. He was about to leave when Boldunov grabbed him.

          "It's not like we haven't told them before. We're not blind, we can see what those sons-of-bitches are doing on the other side of the Bug! Come with me, pozhalusta, please. I'll show you what I mean."

          Boldunov stood up and practically dragged Rozenkrijtz to the bunker door. Semyon extricated himself but, curiosity aroused, followed Boldunov. They took a path that sloped gently downward to the river. An observation post had been built at the edge of the treeline. Boldunov pointed across the river.

          "Can you hear them? Can you?"

          Semyon could hear it on the path long before they reached the riverbank: the angry whine of diesel engines in low gear, the clank of metal treads.

          "Armor. A lot of it," he commented.

          "They get bolder every minute. At first, they stayed well camouflaged. We saw almost no trace of them by day. Now they don't even bother to conceal themselves. You can't see it now but they've built what looks like a mooring for a pontoon bridge almost exactly opposite us. I write it all up and pass it on to Minsk. They do nothing. When I ask, they just say: Don't worry, The Boss knows all about it.'

          "I've got my wife and kids here. So do a lot of other men. When I asked permission to evacuate dependents, Minsk denied it! Where's the sense or justice of that?"

          Rozenkrijtz thought it ironic to hear an NKVD man, undoubtedly steeped to his elbows in blood, complain about injustice, but kept quiet.

          "You've got to help, Tovarish Kapitan, you've got to make them understand. I'm told you're considered one of the best officers in the division; they'll listen to you. Once you tell them what the deserter said, they'll believe you."

          "They won't listen to anyone who contradicts what they believe," said Rozenkrijtz.

          "High command has decided that the Red Army will not do anything that might be interpreted by as a provocation and thereby cause war. That means that even if a nemtsij personally shoots you in the head, you can't even whisper about it."

          "What can we do then?"

          "Do? What sort of weapons do you have? Any mortars? How about supplies?"

          "We only have small arms. There's three days' rations, kasha and hardtack."

          Rozenkrijtz thought for a moment.

          "See those ridges, off to our right? They have a good view of the riverbank. Set up firing points there with interlocking fields of fire. You know how to do that, don't you?"

          "Da, koneshno, yes, of course, Tovarish Kapitan," said Boldunov.

          "They'll send engineers across first on rafts. Watch for them. Wait until they land and begin securing their perimeter before you open fire. That way, you'll bag a few before they flank you."

          "Before they flank us? You mean that won't drive them away?"

          "'Drive them away?'" said Semyon.

          "Durak, fool, do you think this is some little pinprick assault? We're being invaded, overrun. They're sure to penetrate the border in at least half a dozen different spots on either side of you! Whole divisions will crash through. Do you ever talk to your counterparts on your flanks? Do you think they see something different?"

          "What about my wife and kids?"

          "What about them? You've killed women and children in your time, you're surprised it may happen to yours? Build a bunker in the forest where they can hide. Write letters putting your affairs in order. Pray. Just don't expect any help."

          "Oh, Bozhe moj, my God, isn't there any hope?"


          Rozenkrijtz left. It was a clear night. The moon and stars burned brilliantly. Semyon had no trouble finding the GAZ-AA. He roused Korzhak, sensibly asleep in the cab in his commander's absence, and ordered him to return to Domacheva. They rode in silence. What he'd learned at the border sat on Semyon's stomach like lead. The worst conceivable disaster was going to happen and there was nothing he could do. Yet he had to do something, like an ant that scurries for shelter the instant before it's crushed by a hob-nailed boot, he had to at least try or go mad.

          It was 0300 when they arrived at Domacheva, three hours until reveille. Semyon excused Korzhak from first assembly and dismissed him.

          Deryagin was waiting for him.

          "What were you doing on the border?" he demanded.

          "Comparing fly-casting techniques with Boldunov," said Rozenkrijtz affably. "He tells me they're some fine, large trout to be had."

          "There's no need for sarcasm," said Deryagin, "as a Red Army officer and unit politruk, I've a right to be informed!"

          Rozenkrijtz grabbed Deryagin by his Sam Browne belt and jerked him so close their faces were only millimeters apart.

          "Play your silly games while you can, little man."

          He shoved him away and went to his hut for a couple of hours' sleep. Utterly mystified, Deryagin stared at him dumbfaced as he walked away.

          Semyon woke at 0500. Rudakov, his batman, brought him hot water from the field kitchen and he shaved. He dressed, went over to the telephone exchange and told the signalist to put in a request to Regiment to meet as soon as possible with the commander, Major Ogarik.

          It was Rozenkrijtz's habit to periodically review a company first assembly, to keep them sharp. No one thought it unusual, therefore, when he showed up at second company's encampment at 0600. Lopatov gave the orders of the day, work on the new barracks for first platoon and tactical and physical training for second and third, in accord with Semyon's command to alternate duties. After he'd dismissed the company, Lopatov walked over, smiling broadly, until he saw Semyon's grim expression.

          "V chem delo, what's the matter, Semka? You look exhausted."

          "I am. Let's walk again."

          They went into the forest, to a small clearing where hobbled livestock grazed. Semyon briefed Lopatov on what he'd learned last night at the border. When he'd finished, Sasha whistled.

          "Looks like we're really in the shit. What are we going to do?"

          "I've asked to meet Ogarik today. I'll tell him what I just told you. If he goes up the line to Division and they pass it on to Corps, the Big Shits may take notice, although I doubt it. I'm also going to try to pry some mines and ammo out of him.

          "In the meantime, while I'm gone, reconnoiter the road to the border, just the first ten kilometers past Domacheva. Look for a good spot for an ambush, a sharp bend in the road. Look for defensive positions behind that, with enough cover for all three companies. There won't be any time to reach the border when things start, not on foot, they'll just meet us on the move and tear us to pieces. We'll have to fight nearby. If that ass Deryagin wants to know what you're doing, bite his nose off."

          "With pleasure, Tovarish Kapitan," said Lopatov, smiling broadly as he saluted.

          Rozenkrijtz walked back to Domacheva. He checked with the signalist who told him that Major Ogarik would be available this morning. He confirmed a meeting for 0800 and then had breakfast, kasha and chai. At 0700 he rousted Korzhak. They left shortly afterwards in the lorry for the headquarters of the 136th Rifle Regiment in Pruzhany. Headquarters company was encamped in tents on the outskirts of the village. The encampment wasn't camouflaged. Another fat target for German Stukas, Rozenkrijtz thought grimly, practically begging to be strafed and bombed.

          Major Ogarik received Semyon in his tent with evident pleasure. A tall man in his late forties, with the deeply inset eyes and proud nose of a true Russian, he had begun military service in the tsarist army. He was one of the few senior officers Rozenkrijtz respected.

          "Nu, what brings my otlichnik to the rear, today?" he asked jovially. "Rations, supplies, personnel troubles? Tell me what the problem is and I'll see what I can do."

          "I wished it was something like that, Tovarish Major," answered Semyon.

          He took the chair Ogarik offered.

          "This sounds serious. Out with it, man."

          Rozenkrijtz repeated what he'd told Lopatov, only in more detail, not only discussing the deserter and his news of imminent invasion but what Boldunov and his men had seen before. Ogarik listened calmly without interrupting. When Semyon had finished, Ogarik picked up a report from his field-desk and handed it to him.

          "This isn't supposed to be disseminated any further, but I don't think it makes much difference at this point if you see it."

          Rozenkrijtz scanned the document quickly. In workmanlike prose, the report laid out an order of battle for German forces on the Belorussian border: 15 identified infantry divisions, 5 tank, 2 motorized and 2 cavalry divisions, a total approximated strength of 40 divisions, almost 700,000 men, all superbly equipped and trained.

          "Polkovnik Blokhin, intelligence head for the Western Front, prepared that," Ogarik explained.

          "It's dated 7 June, so things have probably changed somewhat in the past 11 days, undoubtedly for the worse."

          "So what I'm telling you isn't much of a shock?"

          "I'm afraid not. I'm sorry to ruin your surprise, but I've expected them to move for some time now. If they're going to invade this year, they have to do it soon while the good weather lasts. Of course, that business in the Balkans slowed them up but not by much."

          "Division and Corps must know about this. So must 4th Army. Why don't they do something?"

          "They know, but they're inclined to discount it. From what I can gather, most senior officers insist the nemtsie are just strengthening their position for purposes of political bargaining. That's the line Front Commander Pavlov is taking, in any event."

          Rozenkrijtz sat in his chair for a few moments, mulling over Ogarik's revelations. When he finally spoke, he chose his words carefully: "I understand, Tovarish Major, that, like everybody else in the Red Army, you have to obey orders. What our superiors have decided must be followed. Yet is there nothing we can do? Aren't there any concrete, practical steps we can take?"

          "I'm open to suggestions."

          "What about mines? We can have the engineers stop construction and lay minefields on the border. That would slow the nemtsie considerably."

          "There are none to be had."

          "Well, ammunition then. My battalion has its basic issue, but that's hardly enough for one day's combat. I've got a lorry. Let me use the next couple of days to stock up."

          "As you know, further ammunition cannot be issued without the approval of the Front Commander. General Pavlov has issued no such order."

          Astonished and appalled, Rozenkrijtz stared at Ogarik, who returned his amazed stare with his own calm, friendly gaze. Semyon realized that as much as the regiment commander might want to help, his hands were tied. The shortsighted system they had sworn to protect had hamstrung them.

          "Don't think I don't sympathize, Kapitan, but any measures we might be able to take in the short time which your deserter claims we have left would undoubtedly be detected by the NKVD and immediately reported and countermanded. I know what I'm talking about; they just did it to Kirponos in Kiev when he tried to move some troops up to the border. We can do nothing that might be interpreted as a provocation."

          Semyon was about to plaintively demand to know what they could do when he realized how childish that would sound. Instead he stood up and said tersely: "Then, in any event, I would appreciate it if you would pass my information upward to Division with a request that they bring it immediately to Corps' attention."

          "Gladly," said Ogarik.

          He stood up, walked over to Rozenkrijtz, and put an arm around his shoulder.

          "Try not to worry," he counseled, "perhaps the deserter is a provocateur sent to trick us. Things look bleak here, but we don't have the advantage of the big picture like they do in Moscow. You know what they say: Stalin The Boss knows better.'"

          He was lying. Both men knew it, but let it pass. Semyon shook hands with Ogarik, a strong, lasting clasp, for this was in all likelihood the last time they would ever see each other. Semyon returned to Domacheva.

          The next two days passed normally on the surface. The battalion followed its usual routine: one platoon from each company built barracks; the other two platoons trained for combat. If the focus was on field entrenchment several kilometers to the west of Domacheva and eight kilometers from the border, that could be explained as an effort to remedy a long-standing deficiency. The troops did what they were told in the traditional Russian manner, without questions, although grumbling, especially by men without entrenching tools who had to use their helmets.

          The entrenchments were too far from the border to be interpreted as a provocative move. Deryagin was nevertheless suspicious, as Rozenkrijtz expected. He snooped everywhere, walked every trench, and demanded to know what was going on from ignorant efrejtors. This suited Semyon since it permitted other, more secret, preparations back in Domacheva. He took a leaf from former Finnish enemies. Several trustworthy men made "Molotov cocktails" under his supervision. Petrol was blended with kerosene and tar in empty vodka bottles — one thing in plentiful supply — with a dishrag jammed in each bottle's neck for a fuse. Grenades were taped together into clusters to blow the treads off tanks.

          Rozenkrijtz gave no sign of being under any strain. He followed his usual punishing itinerary, but slept regularly. In reliance on an order from the Main Military Soviet to camouflage forward military units, he moved to the command post in the woods outside Domacheva. A sharp-eyed observer — like Deryagin — might also have noticed he frequently conferred with Lopatov, huddled over topographical maps, whispering so Zholudev couldn't overhear.

          Subbota the 21st was another muggy, hot day. It was a duty day so Rozenkrijtz could continue with his preparations. Mladshij Lejtenant Bychkovskij, the third company commander, asked if he could be excused early to attend a play at the Minsk Officers' Club. Rozenkrijtz denied the request, an action that struck Bychkovskij as arbitrary and unjustified, but surprised no one, given Semyon's notoriety as a tyrant, a reputation confirmed by his recent behavior. He was more than usually harsh that day, constantly on the move, always dissatisfied, his tongue a lash that drove men and officers. Despite Semyon's efforts, however, Subbota slipped through his hands. The evening found him sitting on a camp chair at the command post in the woods. He sipped chai and reviewed for the millionth time a situation that could only be called hopeless.

          "Semich," said Lopatov, "don't brood. We did what we could in the short time we had. Who knows, maybe the nemtsij was lying."

          "That's what Ogarik said. Save your fairy tales for children. It will happen just like the deserter said."

          "Nu, even if it does, what else can we do?"

          "One other thing occurred to me. Take a squad. Post it around the telephone exchange as a guard. The nemtsie may send fifth columnists ahead of them, Ukrainians who follow Bandera, the OUN. Man the first watch; make sure the men stay vigilant."

          "Tak tochno, Semka," said Lopatov, always glad to act rather than think.

          Rozenkrijtz wasted another hour after that in pointless brooding, then finally lay down on the cot Rudakov had set up for him. He couldn't sleep. Tomorrow loomed in his mind like an abyss, a pit that would swallow him and millions of others, never to be heard from again. He almost wished it would begin now, just to get it over with. At last he drifted off into a gray, dissatisfactory half-sleep, crowded with vague, disturbing thoughts and unidentifiable malevolent images until it was shattered by the unmistakable crack of rifle fire.

          He jumped up, fully awake and already dressed, and pulled out his sidearm. He ran to the village where the rifle fire originated, to the telephone exchange. Wary of being shot by his own men, he advanced cautiously. Lopatov and the men from his squad, weapons at the ready, stood in a circle watching a man thrash violently on the ground. Rozenkrijtz looked closer. The wounded man wore civilian clothes.

          "Report," he said.

          "We took up positions as ordered," said Sasha after a few seconds. He couldn't stop watching the dying man.

          "A few minutes ago Remskij saw some men, five or six at most, running from hut to hut toward us. We challenged them and got no answer. They opened up on us; it sounded like machine pistols. We returned fire. This fellow ran toward us and we shot him."

          "Looks like you caught him in the lung," said Rozenkrijtz. " Too bad he's in no shape to be interrogated. Any others?"

          "Not that I can tell."

          "Keep the squad here. Reinforce it with another one; they may attack again. Have the remaining squads turn everyone out of their huts. Put anyone unfamiliar under arrest."

          Lopatov ran off to execute his orders. Rozenkrijtz looked down at the dying man again. He was young, a boy. His thin white face was drawn even sharper in his pain. Blood bubbles formed in his mouth as he gasped for air.

          "Mat, Mat," he cried, "Mother, Mother."

          Semyon took his Nagant revolver and put it to the Banderist's temple. He pulled the trigger. The bullet killed him instantly. The momentary silence that followed was shattered by the shouts and wails of the villagers as Lopatov and his men dragged them out of their homes.

          Rozenkrijtz heard another sound, a background noise that steadily grew in volume, muffled rumbling like summer thunder from the west. Violent flashes of orange and red flared all along the horizon. The luminous dial of his wristwatch showed 0330.

          "It's started," said Semyon.

          He went into the telephone exchange and told Logarev the signalist to put him through to Regiment. Quaking with fear, Logarev fumbled with the crude switchboard then reported that the telephone was dead. Rather than foolishly assault the telephone exchange again, the Banderists had gained some sense and cut the telephone lines outside Domacheva. Rozenkrijtz ordered the signalist to take his tool kit and find where the lines had been cut, a command that prostrated Logarev. He only obeyed after Rozenkrijtz detailed three men as a guard and threatened to shoot Logarev if he didn't move fast. Lopatov was waiting for him.

          "Find anyone?" Semyon demanded.

          "No, just the usual hostile bunch."

          "That's what I expected. They've gone down to the road to Pruzhany and cut the lines. I sent Logarev with a guard to repair them. Stick the peasants back in their huts. Barricade the doors so they can't get out; otherwise, they'll shoot us in the back. Turn Korzhak out and tell him to load the lorry. Fetch Bychkovskij and Zakharov. Bring them to the command post. I'll give my orders there."

          Semyon ran back to the woods. The intensity and volume of the German barrage grew steadily. The guns were getting closer. The guard remembered to properly challenge Rozenkrijtz, a small thing that encouraged him. Zholudev was in a complete funk.

          "Tovarish Kapitan," the little man squealed breathlessly, "what's happening? We heard shooting. What's all that noise? Is it an artillery unit nearby?"

          "Nyet, durak, no, fool! The Germans are invading. Get your rifle and helmet and report to first company for duty as a rifleman. I've no further need for a pisar!"

          Zholudev whimpered. Rozenkrijtz slapped him hard across the face.

          "Move, you filthy informer or I'll field court-martial you and shoot you for the scum you are."

          Zholudev scuttled away, weeping piteously. Lopatov showed up shortly afterwards with the other company commanders. Rozenkrijtz ordered Bychkovskij and Zakharov to have first and third companies deploy with full field kit, including rifles and ammunition, in previously designated wooded areas. Second company would continue to secure Domacheva and the command post and would deploy once the other two companies moved out. The two officers hastened to carry out their orders, leaving Semyon and Sasha alone. They listened for a few seconds to the hellish thunder of thousands of high-caliber field-pieces.

          "Think we'll get out of this one?" said Lopatov lightly.

          "Nyet. Don't tell me you're scared." Semyon grinned as he said it.

          "Nekogda, never," replied Sasha, "although I will admit this terrible Red Army food makes me feel like shitting my pants."

          "Tovarish Kapitan Rozenkrijtz," a sharp voice said, "I must speak to you immediately."

          Deryagin walked up to the field table.

          "Be quick about it," replied Rozenkrijtz. "We march in ten minutes."

          "That is exactly what I want to discuss. Pursuant to what orders are first and third companies forming up for combat?"


          "And what is your authority? Have you heard from Regiment? If so, I demand to see the written order."

          Semyon and Aleksei stared at Deryagin open-mouthed, utterly amazed anyone could be so rigidly doctrinaire at such an obvious moment of crisis.

          "Communications with Regiment have been cut. We're trying to reestablish them. Can't you tell from the cannon fire we're being invaded, Deryagin?"

          Deryagin looked westward and waved a hand dismissively.

          "It's undoubtedly another attempt on the Germans' part to provoke us into hostilities.

          "I needn't remind you that we have received explicit instructions on repeated instances from the highest authority that we are not to engage in any activities that might be interpreted as belligerent by the Germans. Yet, you tell me without hesitation that you're acting on your own initiative in direct contravention of those orders.

          "And there's more. On the way here, I observed Korzhak loading something into the lorry. On closer inspection, I discovered a large number of incendiary devices. I take it these were prepared at your direction also."

          "You understand correctly," said Rozenkrijtz, mocking Deryagin's bureaucratese. He was enjoying the charade, Deryagin's serious manner.

          "You leave me no choice. You are under arrest for anti-Soviet behavior and for disobeying direct orders from the Main Military Soviet. Lopatov, consider yourself under arrest as well; you're in on it too. I shall have to ask you to surrender your side-arms."

          He paused then said, naked triumph in his tone: "I knew you'd slip up sooner or later, you cold, arrogant bastard!"

          Rozenkrijtz pulled his revolver from his holster but he didn't hand it over to Deryagin. A crack shot, he raised the pistol and fired.

          The bullet caught Deryagin just below his officer's cap. He fell, dead before he even hit the ground.

          "Guards! Guards!" Semyon shouted. "Tovarish Politruk Deryagin has been murdered by Banderists. Double the watch! Secure the perimeter immediately!"

          "But you killed him," said Lopatov.

          "Shut up, do you want people to hear?"

          Semyon went over to Deryagin and took his pistol and cartridges.

          "My silver lining," he said as he looked down at the dead man.

          Rozenkrijtz put the cartridges in his pocket and jammed the pistol in his belt. He exchanged his cap for a helmet, put a rucksack full of grenades on his back, and shouldered a Moisin rifle. Semyon turned to Lopatov and said: "Deploy second company. We march now."

by Mark A. Mellon
... who is an attorney, a former U.S. Army linguist, a sometime teacher, salesman, lifeguard, and freelance writer. He has published four novels: The Empire of the Green, Hammer and Skull, The Pirooters, and Libertarians in Love; a fantasy novella: Escape From Byzantium; and his shorter works have appeared in periodicals and chapbooks, including: Terra Incognita, Of Ages Past, Aberrations, Chasm, Behold!, Gauntlet!, Anthrolations, Gothic.Net, Albedo One, Black Satellite, Whispers From The Shattered Forum, Dark Angel Rising, Sutekh's Gift, and Hadrosaur Tales. Some of his works are also featured on his website.